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Hip Hop Feminism

A visit with Treva Lindsey, Assistant Professor, Department of Women and Gender Studies

By Kelly Washatka
Published: - Topics: Women's and Gender Studies popular culture hip hop feminism

The title “Hip Hop Generation Feminist” may seem hard to grasp for some, but Dr. Treva Lindsey wears this title proudly. Dr. Lindsey’s PhD is in History, but she came to her current department—Women and Gender Studies—and her cultural role as a “Hip Hop Generation Feminist” by applying a historical perspective to the images she saw every day in pop culture. She is intrigued by images that continue to be reproduced in generations of pop culture and how they evolve in response to social changes.

Dr. Lindsey uses her background as a historian to evaluate the current images of women in hip hop, focusing on the way the cultural history of slavery and segregation affects how the bodies of black women are perceived today. She asks herself and her students, “What would a history of black female pleasure look like?” There is certainly a history of objectification, but to deny that black women were still finding pleasure during periods of slavery and segregation is equally dehumanizing.

Focusing on hip hop culture came naturally to Dr. Lindsey. She was already deeply invested in it, having grown up listening to the music and participating in the community that hip hop interacts with most. Dr. Lindsey says of her role as a critic of the culture, “The fact that I do love it means I have to critique it.” Dr. Lindsey takes on this obligation to “lovingly engage” with the subject because she feels that many critics of hip hop come from a place that is disconnected from the issues that hip hop addresses, and because of this, their critiques ring hollow. To truly have an effect on the hip hop community, the criticism of its flaws needs to come from a place of respect and experience.

For hip hop artists today, the history of racism and sexual objectification weighs heavily on how they are perceived when performing songs with sexual content. Dr. Lindsey stresses that there is a strong force to “want to cover up entirely” rather than to truly reclaim women’s own sites of pleasure. When performing pieces that address sexuality, the women of hip hop walk a fine line between exploitation and empowerment, and the main difference between these, Dr. Lindsey feels, is having an “authorial position.” Yet even when they take on a position of sexual agency, women often are criticized for expressing what they like. Dr. Lindsey thinks this is because “we’re still more comfortable with the object” rather than accepting women as subjects with sexual agency. The unfortunately common response is to label any sexual performance as objectifying without thinking about how or why these women are expressing their sexual side.

Dr. Lindsey’s love of, and faith in, hip hop is not merely a defensive stance; she acknowledges its faults, but she wants hip hop to be seen as “a site of possibility.” Such possibilities are seen in the way that hip hop “gives voice to issues in the community that are very important.” Sexual health and the fraught relationship between the black community and the police are several of the major issues that hip hop has been influential in addressing. For instance, Salt-N-Pepa’s song “Let’s Talk About Sex” was one of the first to openly address condom usage and sexually transmitted diseases. Hip hop can succeed in bringing awareness to such topics because of its continuously broadening audience, particularly in youth culture.

However, there are still the negative aspects to consider within the hip hop community. Particularly for black girls, the objectifying and degrading images often put forth by hip hop artists can be truly “debilitating,” Dr. Lindsey says. Young black girls often get overlooked because “even as feminists, we tend to look at black women, and not black girls." Dr. Lindsey believes strongly it is not just a matter of replacing negative images with positive ones, but in presenting a wide spectrum of images of black women. Young girls are trying to get a sense of themselves, and having a wider range of images to draw from as they form their identities is essential, especially because those girls will be shaping the images seen by future generations.

One issue that can be especially damaging for young people—and that is often poorly represented in pop culture—is the way sexual and relationship violence is regarded by the community. This issue was brought dramatically to light at the 2011 Grammy Award Ceremony, where Chris Brown was awarded a Grammy and asked to perform when Rihanna, the woman whom he assaulted in 2009, was in attendance. His presence was upsetting for Dr. Lindsey and her like-minded fellows because of Chris Brown’s lack of genuine effort toward recovery since the incident. The warm welcome Chris Brown has received is especially upsetting when contrasted with the way Rihanna is ostracized for accepting him back and the way people questioned her role in the violence against her. This warped treatment of perpetrator and victim deeply concerns Dr. Lindsey because of the effect it could have on young people who are going through a violent relationship themselves; it makes violence seem acceptable and misplaces blame. About this behavior Dr. Lindsey asks, “Where is the cultural sense of outrage against sexual violence?” Dr. Lindsey does not want to completely demonize Chris Brown either, but “coming back from a place where you think it’s okay to put your hands on someone in a violent way is a journey and a process”—one that cannot be completed through more awards and blind acceptance.

In Dr. Lindsey’s work, social media has been transformative. It has been a huge help in taking on one of the greatest challenges she faces as a “Hip Hop Generation Feminist,” namely, the varying paces of the worlds in which she resides—pop culture moves at an extremely fast pace, and academic publishing, unfortunately, does not. This means that if Dr. Lindsey wants to discuss pop culture events as they are happening, she needs another outlet. Through blogs and Twitter, Dr. Lindsey is able to interact with the communities she hopes to influence in a more immediate way. When the response is more immediate, it is far more likely to gain traction and truly affect the community it addresses.

Social media is also highly influential. Creating and sharing the more dynamic and varied representations of black women that Dr. Lindsey wants to see more of in her community through YouTube, blogs, and other outlets, black women and girls share the unique people and stories that may be missing from mainstream representation.

Dr. Lindsey’s field is complex and riddled with issues that need to be resolved. But her passion for her work and her love for her community keep the “Hip Hop Generation Feminist” strongly committed to be a transformative presence in the evolution of the representations of women in hip hop.